Sami Peterson seems to be juggling every possible family caregiver role at once. She is a caregiver to her husband who has Huntington’s Disease, she is a caregiver to her son who has a developmental disorder, and she is a caregiver to her elderly mother. She also has a full-time job.
“It’s been hard to identify myself as a caregiver,” she admits in an interview. “If it were just for my Mom or my son, I don’t think I would see myself that way. But when Rob [her husband] was diagnosed, I was forced to change my thinking.”
Mrs. Peterson’s role as family caregiver is officially being recognized and honored by Homewatch CareGivers and the National Family Caregivers Association, who have named her the National Family Caregiver of the Year.
7 different people in her community, including friends and family who know her well and admire her dedication, submitted nominations for Mrs. Peterson. “Though this isn’t why she won, it is above average,” says Leann Reynolds, President of Homewatch CareGivers.
“They didn’t tell me I had been nominated until the day before the local awards dinner,” Mrs. Peterson, 51, said. “I was expecting a sales presentation, a five-dollar Starbucks card and a bunch of brochures! I’ve been really impressed that Homewatch CareGivers is really committed to caregivers.”
Sami’s nomination received acknowledgement at the local level and was then submitted to a national panel of caregiving experts, where her nomination was evaluated among local finalists from across the United States.
Homewatch CareGivers created the Family Caregiver of the Year Award in 2009 to recognize and reward family caregivers with inspirational stories who stand out among the 65 million family caregivers in America. The award provides one very special person out of many very deserving nominees with $10,000 in cash, a scholarship to the Homewatch CareGivers University, and a day of respite care.
When asked for her reaction to winning the national prize, Mrs. Peterson thought for a moment before answering. “I’m spending today praying about that,” she said quietly. She added that she would like to pay off some medical bills and create an emergency fund savings account.
In nominating her stepmother, Lana Peterson noted that the couple sold their home outside of Fort Collins, Colorado to live in a townhome in the northern Colorado college town 13 years ago when Mr. Peterson, 66, was diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease. [Huntington’s Disease is a hereditary degenerative brain disease for which there is no cure. Mr. Peterson’s mother also had Huntington’s Disease.]
“She overcomes so many obstacles every day,” Mrs. Peterson wrote in her nomination. “She is successful in helping my Dad and brother be all they can be, even though they have these disabilities. She has to give up a lot of her life to provide care.”
In addition to being a family caregiver, Mrs. Peterson works full time as a project manager for the county. Her job is to help families who go on welfare by providing employment coaching.
It's not just that Mrs. Peterson's has more stamina than the average man or woman, or can somehow squeeze more into a day. What is most compelling about her story is that she is willing to stand-up for the needs of her family, amidst great challenges.
She has had to fight for her son, now 17, to be allowed to attend the local public school and negotiated with her husband’s insurance when premiums were raised and coverage reduced, as well as find grants to cover experimental medications for him. She has had financial hardships as she paid for alternative doctors such as naturopaths and chiropractors for her son and husband when insurance would not cover the bills.
“Being a wife and mother was all my sister wanted growing up,” wrote Becci McCormack, Mrs. Peterson’s sister, in a letter to the nomination committee. “I’ve watched as her dreams faded into a reality of caregiving and sacrifice. She’s had to fight the systems of education, healthcare, insurance and employment to find an affordable and viable situation for her family.”
Beyond the prize specifics, Mrs. Peterson said that the meaning and value of the award extends to others in similar situations. “This is a bigger platform to talk about the needs of the caregivers in the United States,” she said. “I am honored to be representing that voice for all caregivers. Personally it’s a huge confirmation that the time and energy I spend doing this is noticed and appreciated. It makes me feel less alone.”